Christians who move beyond the milk of the Gospel, into the meat of the Christian life (Hebrews 4:12-5:3) enter into the arena of difficult decisions, often balancing conflicting understandings of what God demands of them. It is no easy task, since maturity means you take more of the responsibility for deciding which decision is the right one, because you have moved beyond the simple recorded precepts of right and wrong that make staying with the milk so inviting. Instead you are in the area of interpretation of the deeper truths of the Gospel and are required to balance multiple demands that often compete for primacy.
For me, throughout the growth in my Christian life and my pursuit of Christian maturity, the key has been balance; weighing the texts, context, and historic understanding of the Church as I attempt to apply God’s Word to the decisions and situations of my life. One problem with the historic understanding of the Church is that beyond its easily accepted universal pronouncements that established fundamental doctrine by dealing with certain heresies (e.g. those who denied the divinity and humanity of Christ and the Trinity) and the establishment of fundamental creeds (e.g. Apostles, Nicene, Athenasian), it was composed of men who were children of their age, influenced by the structures in which they thought, the milieu in which they lived (see my article The World in Which We Think. Therefore, some of their concerns and advice are tainted by the time in which they lived. That is not unique; it a problem we all face.
I should say right now that I am not talking about the major issues of the day: those seeking homosexual normality and acceptance, abortion, or women in fundamental Church leadership. To me, those are biblically settled issues and the problems we have dealing with them are due to the time in which we live and its inroads into the church, not any ambiguity in the Word.
The area I am dealing with is excellence: in work, in craft, in avocation, in anything. Like it or not, Christians walk a fine line when it comes to excellence and its fellow travelers, pride, success and fame. I believe that God expects the absolute best that we can accomplish from the gifts and talents he has given us. That is made abundantly clear by Jesus in the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30). But Jesus also warned against thinking we were more than we were in his description of the unprofitable servant (Luke 17:7-10). He warned us that when all is said and done we have just done our duty.
The implication in the Luke story is that anyone who works hard and is excellent in what they do deserves something special and that is what Jesus is addressing. If you listen to our culture you deserve fortune and possibly fame. At the very least you deserve a break, as the famous McDonald commercial used to say (You deserve a break today!). But all of that is upset by Jesus who says, “So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.'”
Here is rub. We believe in a situation called “above and beyond the call of duty” and that is the framework for awarding medals in the military or giving promotions and large raises in business. However, Jesus defined duty as doing what you were commanded, which while in some sense is universal, it also individual. In the parable of the talents, different servants were given different starting points (1, 2, and 5 talents). As a result there were different expectations for each of them, or to put it in our context, different commands. Two did their duty. Yes, they got a reward (if you consider additional responsibility and work a reward), but that never entered the picture as to their motivation for their efforts at excellence. In a way, it was an unintended consequence. They did their duty out of love and respect for their master and did it to the uttermost, simply because that is what the master expected.
Here is where we enter the nexus point of the issue, the place where the Word cuts between the bones and marrow of the situation, between the thoughts and intentions of the heart. There is a distinct difference in the intention of the heart between the pursuit of a reward and in simply being all that God has called you to be. It is that difference that casts the shape of your soul in the hands of the potter. Yet to arrive at an balanced understanding concerning this distinction, you have to place multiple scriptures on the scales of discernment, giving each their context and due, all the while trying to filter out as much as possible the gestalt in which you live. It is no easy task and is why there are considerably less mature and humbly responsible Christians than there aught to be.
I think there is a key, however, and it is intimated in my previous concern about the gestalt in which we live. Paul told the Athenians that God was the one in whom “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). I would argue that is the key to the balance and understanding we seek. We need to shift the center of our gestalt from the world around us to God; we need to learn to effectively be “in the world, not of the world”, to be like Christ who engaged those around him, along with their needs and concerns, but did not let them determine his thinking or his mission. That was governed by the Father and him alone (Not my will but yours be done).
Remember, it is not the world in which we live and move and have our being, but God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Now go and pull up your anchor from the seabed of this world and cast it into the deep heart of God. Only there will you find the balance needed to choose rightly, act responsibly and do what you have been commanded to do. Amen.